Palestinian leaders and spokesmen on Monday warned of a civil war as three people were killed as gun battles erupted between armed Hamas and Fatah militias in the southern Gaza Strip.
Monday morning's violent clashes were the worst since Hamas formed its new cabinet in March.
They took place only hours after Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh failed to settle their differences during a meeting in Gaza City, the second of its kind in 48 hours.
Egyptian security officials who are in the Gaza Strip were trying to mediate on Monday between the two sides, sources close to Abbas said.
Hamas said the clashes began after Fatah gunmen kidnapped three of its men near Khan Yunis. Dozens of Hamas gunmen later surrounded a building where the kidnapped men were being held, but refrained from storming the place to avoid bloodshed, a senior Hamas official told The Jerusalem Post
He said the Hamas gunmen instead kidnapped four Fatah militiamen to secure the release of the abducted Hamas activists. Following the intervention of clan leaders and notables in the area, both sides agreed to release the hostages, he added.
According to the official, hundreds of Fatah gunmen later went on a shooting spree in the area, targeting the homes of some Hamas members. He said 23-year-old Wasfi Shahwan, a member of Hamas's armed wing, Izzadin Kassam, was shot and killed during the attack.
Following the incident, a fierce gun battle erupted between the two sides and two Fatah gunmen were killed - Muhammed al-Jaraf and Hamadeh Ismail. At least five other people were wounded.
Fatah leaders accused Hamas of initiating the confrontation and accused the Islamic movement's heads of inciting against Fatah. Radwan al-Akhras, a spokesman for Fatah in the Gaza Strip, said recent statements by some Hamas leaders against Fatah had increased tensions and triggered the armed clashes.
He was referring to statements made by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who accused Abbas of conspiring with the US and Israel to bring down the Hamas cabinet.
"These statements have increased tensions and created confusion on the Palestinian street," the Fatah spokesman said. "Fatah wants to conduct a national dialogue with Hamas. But Hamas has responded by using rockets and automatic rifles."
He also lashed out at Hamas for establishing a special security force to assist the PA security forces in the Gaza Strip. "Was this force set up to kill Palestinians?" he asked. "This force does not belong to the government, but to Hamas. It's an illegal force that was responsible for Monday's clashes in Khan Yunis." He said the clashes erupted when members of a Hamas force, manning a checkpoint in the area, kidnapped a Fatah gunman.
Abdel Hakim Awad, another Fatah spokesman, said the clashes were the direct result of the incitement against Fatah leaders. "Mashaal is responsible for the violence and the anarchy, as well as threats to Palestinian journalists and Fatah leaders," he said, expressing fear that the tensions could trigger a civil war.
The armed wing of Fatah, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, accused Hamas of trying to drag the Palestinians into internecine fighting and vowed to use their weapons against any Hamas member who attacks Fatah.
The group blamed Interior Minister Said Siam for the mounting tension because of his decision to establish the new security force that consists largely of Hamas gunmen.
"I hope we're not headed toward an all-out confrontation between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip," said political analyst Jamal al-Majaydeh. "I hope that the evil and destructive confrontation won't take place as both sides amass weapons and prepare to fight. The big tragedy could happen and the Palestinians will be the biggest losers."
Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas cabinet, said his movement would do its utmost to prevent a civil war. "The issue of civil war is not on the table," he said. "We are keen to avoid bloodshed and internal tensions."
In a separate development, Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Aziz Dweik on Monday ordered the formation of a commission of inquiry into the cause of a fire that broke out during the day in the PLC building, saying he did not rule out the possibility of foul play.
"There was a fire in the electrical box on the first floor. The fire raced up the power lines to the fourth floor. The electricity went out and we evacuated the building," he said.
"We demand an investigation because if this was not an accident, it is a very dangerous incident," he said. "It could have been carried out by somebody."